Virtual Free Speech Week explores new challenges of modern discourse

Zoe Tzanis

Every year, during the third week of October, institutions across the country celebrate Free Speech Week to raise awareness about the power of free speech and its role in American democracy. 

With online classes and the majority of public discourse taking place online, free speech at UT and college campuses across the nation is under new scrutiny. In this year's virtual Free Speech Week, students heard lectures and participated in discussions from the comfort of their homes, cars and dorms. 

Undeclared sophomore Eva Kahn said Free Speech Week prompted her to engage in conversation about freedom of expression with peers.

“This may be the most pressing issue we’re facing right now,” Khan said. “With the advent of technology and its necessary use during this time, it puts pressure on what actually constitutes speech.”

Journalism assistant professor Sam Woolley spoke as a panelist for a discussion on “Free Speech in Contemporary Society,” hosted by the Moody College of Communication Oct. 21. He said UT students should care about free speech. 

“In the era of (COVID-19), because we are already sequestered and have to stay inside, our speech is more limited than ever,” Woolley said. “Right now, free speech has never been more important.”

Woolley said the controversy around speech in the U.S. is complex but separates into two different perspectives — some believe all speech should be protected without question, while others believe there are forms of speech, namely hate speech, that threaten democracy and must be regulated. 

 



UT’s policy surrounding speech, expression and assembly states that “students, faculty members, staff members, and members of the public have the right to assemble, to speak and to attempt to attract the attention of others.”

“Peaceful protest and free speech are central to American democracy,” Woolley said. “For students to understand what's going on in the world, we need to have free speech.”

Woolley said speech should not endanger those with less power.

“It's important that students can exercise their rights, but it's also really important that students have the right to be safe from any external groups that will try to harm them,” Woolley said.

As a part of Free Speech Week, government professor Lorraine Pangle held a lecture titled “Free Speech and its Skeptics.”

Pangle said the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education ranks UT as No. 54 — second to last — in terms of commitment to free speech. The foundation polled students to understand the state of free speech on campuses. 

University spokesperson J.B. Bird said UT values and protects free speech for all students, faculty and staff.

“(UT’s low free speech ranking by its students) is an area where we are committed to seek improvements, starting this month with a set of activities around national Free Speech Week,” Bird said. 

While Pangle said she doesn’t think online communication has changed the tone of her everyday conversations, she said civility can get lost when trying to engage in discourse over social media. 

Woolley said it is important to recognize the dangers of online platforms as places where polarization swells and misinformation spreads like wildfire. 

“With the internet and its anonymity, there are a lot of people who make use of digital tools to manipulate people,” Woolley said. “It’s not fair.”

Grace Baldwin, a international relations and affairs freshman, attended professor Pangle's lecture with the hopes of engaging with the complexity of the topic.

“It was insightful,” Baldwin said. “College is not a place to be comfortable. College is a place to learn, to be challenged and to feel uncomfortable.”